"Cheap Alternative to Bus, ma'am?"

Now $50 US lighter, we negotiate a price for the cab ride to Aqaba, our guide having long departed. Since there are no public buses, we don’t have any bargaining power and pay what I think is pretty steep for the 12-minute journey, but there you go…that’s the downside of eschewing an organised tour!

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The heavens open en route (a few hours later, in Wadi Musa, we will discover that flash floods have killed 12 children, not far from Aqaba”) and we are dropped quite unceremoniously at what looks like an empty lot. The cab driver pockets our money and screeches off.

Eduardo and I look at the empty lot and conclude that it doesn’t seem much like a bus station. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a man appears in front of us.

“Cheap alternative to bus, sir? Cheap alternative to bus ma’am?”

“No, thank you” I reply politely. “We want the public bus…can you tell us where it leaves from?”

“No public bus here. You take ride in my van.” He points to a battered black van across the street and motions to us. We cross over and peer inside, tenatively.

“Cheap Price, same as bus…just the same.” And before we know it, he’s given us both a mighty shove and we’re inside. He jimps into the passenger seat and the engine revs up. Another guy shoves his foot on the gas and we lurch forward and down what appears to be a main street.

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I look around and all I see are daypacks under about 75% of the seat and I realise immediately his game - he’s taking a group to Petra - he probably picked them up in the capital and they’re now having lunch here, before they continue on. The dude, of course, wants to make a bit extra cash by putting two bums on empty seats. It seems reasonable enough and I figure as long as the group come back reasonably soon, we may as well kick in some cash and ride with them.

Eduardo, however, is freaking out …and with good reason. You see, he grew up in Mexico City where robberies and kidnappings were rife, so the first thing he thinks when he sees the empty backpacks is “Twelve People have been shot and dumped out on the highway and w’re next.” Trying to allay his fears is going to be tough, if not impossible.

“Mister, I feel sick. Stop the bus, I have to get air. Mister, I need to eat lunch” yells my friend, grabbing the driver’s arm. It suddenly occurs to me that he might have a point, since we’re actually in a darkened space, all the black curtains drawn across the windows.. “Let us out” I shout, and amazingly he complies. He pulls the car over to a side street and starts hollering in the direction of another guy.

“This is my brother. He will drive you to Petra for a very cheap price. Very cheap. Same as bus.”

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We look at the vehicle - it’s a truck and in the back are two women - a grandmother and a mother, with a little girl of about 4 on the mother’s lap. Eduardo is anxious and unconvinced. Having wandered through Africa, Asia and Latin America in similar circumstances, I’m less concerned - and the fact that there are three women in the back is a good sign…

“Let’s hear his price. OK? I just want to get out of Aqaba. Come on - you can sit upfront - I’ll be the one squahed in the back.”

After a bit of haggling we settle on 15 dinars for us both (the bus is, in fact, 5 dinar a piece, but I don’t care at this point) and we all shake hands. The driver lights up the first of what will be numerous cigarettes, the women laugh at me as I throw my backpack in the truck’s back and the little girl looks at me shyly, her face covered in chocolate and her black hair toulsed. With a rev of the engine, the truck lurches forward and, within 5 minutes, we’ve left Aqaba behind.

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We’re off to Wadi Musa!